This month Richard Orton shares some advice for growing tulips successfully in our heavy Devon soil, his thoughts on whether or not to tidy your garden in winter and his delight at a spectacular display by his Ginkgo biloba tree. He also suggests a few final gardening jobs before the year comes to an end.

The trouble with tulips is that I love them to bits, but they don’t like growing in my heavy clay Devon soil. They also possess an extremely “diva-esque” temperament, some refusing to grow even once, whereas others grow year on year.

I have some that I purchased from the Chelsea Flower Show some 30 years ago which reliably bloom year after year. Encouraged by this I subsequently bought hundreds of pounds worth of tulips only to be disappointed year after year.

So I gave up completely, contenting myself with the few Chelsea survivors – I call them my Chelsea Pensioners - that bloom every year.

Species tulips are less showy but more reliable

That is until last year when I discovered species tulips. These shorter, less showy, less blousy tulips more than make up for their lack of pizazz with their ability to naturalise and pop up reliably year after year. They form a wonderful multi coloured carpet in early to mid-spring, opening and closing in the spring sunshine. I planted a couple of hundred bulbs in the top paddock where it’s driest and has the most free draining soil in the garden and, as they seem to like it there, I might indulge in a few hundred more.

Last time, I bought a mixed bag of varieties but if you’re tempted to give them a try, I’d go for T.Tarda, T.Little Princess, T.Kolpakowskiana, or T.Little Beauty. In addition to these cheery little souls, I shall as always be planting up my half dozen large planters with this year’s choices of diva tulips too. I treat tulips like annual bedding plants with the added bonus of them perhaps flowering a second time – it gives me the opportunity to ring the changes with whichever varieties catch my eye as I flick through the umpteen bulb catalogues sitting on the coffee table.

This year I’m channeling a carnival theme, a palette of rich reds and oranges picked out with hot pinks and deep purples. Varieties chosen include T.Vincent van Gogh, T.Barcelona, T.Avignon Parrot and T.Salmon Prince. I’ll layer these ‘lasagne’ style and top plant them with some mixed wall flowers. However you decide to grow your tulips you best hurry, not only is time running out to get the bulbs planted, suppliers are running short of stock too.

Whether to tidy or not?

With the onset of winter, the annual discussion of whether to clear borders, prune shrubs and generally tidy or neaten everything in the garden raises its head once more. I personally don’t think there are any hard or fast rules as to whether it’s better to clear dead herbaceous foliage now or in the spring, I think it’s more to do with us gardeners knowing how our own garden works. For sure, clearing away dying vegetation and slimy leaves now will prevent the crowns of your prized hostas from rotting away, but cutting down the stems of Phlomis russelliana and the like, will not only deprive garden birds of the rich treasure contained in its seed heads but will also deprive you of the sight of its beautiful naked stems on a frosty morning.


So, what to do? Well in the spirit of compromise I choose to work to a selective pruning and clearing regime. I tend to clear and prune around the cottage whilst leaving the plants around the pond and in the woodland for the wildlife to enjoy. My theory is that wildlife is more likely to be present in areas that are least disturbed by us, the cats and our two Tibetan terriers. In the areas that I do clear, I remove any rotting foliage but rigid stems are cut down by just half to give flying bugs such as ladybirds a launch pad in the spring as they emerge from their winter slumber.

Some of our very old established shrubs do require pruning at this time of year. One in particular, a gnarled, 50 year old Viburnum bodnatense ‘Dawn’ was way overdue a severe prune to get it back into shape. What had saved it until then was its lichen encrusted boughs, covered in Oak moss and white lichen among others. Over two seasons we have reduced the height and width by two thirds, using the lichened boughs as Christmas decorations. Now in its third year of rejuvenation it looks refreshed and is full of almond scented buds ready to burst in the winter sunshine. It has to be one of the best winter shrubs around.

A show stopping finale from the Ginkgo biloba

A short walk away from the viburnum stands a 30-year-old Ginkgo biloba tree, which this year has put on the most fantastic show stopping finale to the gardening year. Luminescent in its golden splendour it stands, proudly resisting the vagaries of the weather, its leaves clinging on like moths in the flame until they fall like sheets of gold leaf onto the ground below. I find it remarkable that I’ve not noticed this before but also fortunate to have seen this tree grow from a relatively small sapling into a mature tree. Although noted for its slow rate of growth, it has been a fascinating journey to watch.


Until next time…….

Jobs to do for December

●      Give your greenhouse heater a good look over and make sure it’s working correctly.

●      Insulate outdoor taps and prevent ponds from freezing over by floating a ball on the surface.

●      Reduce your watering of houseplants.

●      Prune open grown apples, pears, redcurrants and vines.

●      Keep raking and bagging those leaves, it will pay dividends in the spring.

●      Group your potted plants together in a sheltered spot or bring into a greenhouse for protection.

●      Hard prune your wisteria back to just two buds to encourage bud growth – traditionally a job done on Boxing Day, I think this was an excuse for gardeners to avoid doing the washing up!

●      Order new seed catalogues to select next year’s bedding and perennial choices. You have more chance of finding all your choices in stock if you order well before the spring. Try these independent suppliers for some more unusual varieties - Higgledy Garden, Plants of Distinction,  or Plant World Seeds.

More information about the garden at Lewis Cottage can be found here

Nov 14, 2022

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